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Number 12: Summer 2016

When Acts Speak Louder Than Words: On Lacan’s Theory of Action in Psychoanalytic Practice

Dany Nobus


In the first section of his 1958 essay ‘The Direction of the Treatment and the Principles of its Power,’ Jacques Lacan designated interpretation, transference handling, and the analyst’s clinical position as the three defining operations of the psychoanalytic treatment (Lacan 2006d[1958]: 489-495). In order to clarify the relative importance of these operations, Lacan suggested a hierarchical model in which varying degrees of freedom can be allocated to each of these three principles, inversely proportional to their estimated impact on the course of the treatment. In this model, interpretation displays the highest degree of freedom, and thus gives the analyst most space for manoeuvring, because it has the lowest impact on the direction of the analytic experience. By contrast, the analyst’s clinical position contains the lowest degree of freedom, and thus the least opportunities for technical flexibility, because it is the most important factor for sustaining the psychoanalytic nature of the treatment process. In handling the transference, psychoanalysts are less free than in their formulation of interpretations, yet freer than in the adoption of a certain clinical stance, because the psychoanalytic power of transference is more encompassing than that of interpretation, yet less pervasive than that of the analyst’s position. In keeping with the ambiguity of the term ‘direction’ in the title of Lacan’s essay, one could also say that psychoanalysts need to be less concerned about how to direct (control, monitor, manage) their interpretations, because these contribute relatively little to the direction (orientation, route) of the treatment, whereas they need to be continuously attuned to the direction (steering, maintenance, safeguarding) of their analytic position, in light of the latter’s immense power over the direction (course, path) of the clinical process.

In this paper, I wish to reconsider Lacan’s distinction between the three fundamental psychoanalytic operations, and their concurrent tabulation within a hierarchical schema, from the perspective of clinical action, on the side of the analyst as well as from the perspective of the analysand. More specifically, I want to investigate how certain actions performed by the analyst, in relation to interpretation, transference handling and the analytic position, elicit particular actions in the analysand, which analytic actions contribute most effectively to the realisation of the treatment goal(s), and which actions need to be avoided as detrimental to the advancement of the psychoanalytic experience. This vantage point may seem totally at odds with Lacan’s general conception of psychoanalysis as a practice based on the function of speech and the field of language (Lacan 2006a[1953]). Indeed, it may appear as a contravention of the very foundations of the Lacanian paradigm to re-introduce the notion of action, at a point where Lacan was at great pains to emphasize the impact of the signifier, precisely against all those mainstream psychoanalysts who believed that actions speak louder than words. Yet however strange the notion of action may sound to those who have familiarised themselves with Lacanian psychoanalysis as a clinical practice in which the manipulation of the symbolic register is paramount, and non-verbal interventions are not supposed to enter the equation, an attentive reading of Lacan’s oeuvre suffices to recognize that the term action emerges at regular intervals and in various guises, throughout his intellectual itinerary.

  1. Preliminary versions of this paper were presented at Dublin School
    of Arts, State University of New York—Buffalo, Fordham University,
    Creighton University School of Medicine, and Mission Mental Health—
    San Francisco CA. I am grateful to all the participants in these seminars,
    and especially to Rik Loose, Dan Collins, Ed Robins,